‘Secret to good parenting? Let children be bored’

Cutting out the angst: Above, child psychologist Ruth Coppard.          PICTURE: STEVE TAYLOR

Cutting out the angst: Above, child psychologist Ruth Coppard. PICTURE: STEVE TAYLOR

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Parents’ angst is a growing phenomenon, according to Sheffield child psychologist Ruth Coppard. Star reporter Rachael Clegg hears how parents are more anxious than ever

RUTH Coppard has been a child psychologist for thirty years. And more recently in the last few years she’s noticed a change in parents: they are becoming more anxious about parenting.

Many parents - particularly middle-class parents - are increasingly worried about their parenting abilities.

“Parents are obsessing about what snacks to give their children, how to discipline them and how to entertain them. Only the other day someone I know said to me ‘I don’t give my child crisps and chocolate - middle class parents don’t do that.’ But I gave my children crisps and chocolate and they seem fine,” says Ruth.

“Parents pack their children’s lunchboxes and it’s almost a competition - it’s as if there’s a lunch box monitor.”

And this fussing is fuelled by the media, according to Ruth.

On Mumsnet one thread, entitled ‘Oh dear. I have a Middle Class Baby’ had a post which read: “DS2 (darling son two) has always refused all shop-bought sandwiches other than poached salmon ones. His favourite food is sushi. He is the only child I know who prefers Evian to squash or fizzy drinks, and fruit to chocolate. He also only eats until he is full, and then no more, even if there is only a forkful of food left on his plate, or one sweet in the pack, he won’t eat it!”

But the big baby discussion goes beyond Mumsnet. “If you read the Guardian you’ll know that many of its columnists are having babies and consequently, they’re all writing about bringing up babies and no doubt talking about it at Guardian social events too, and of course this filters through and everyone starts reading and writing about being a parent.”

One of the manifestations of this anxious parenting is entertaining children 24 hours a day. “The trouble now is that children are never allowed to be bored, they’re either playing on their computer games or they’re being taken to whatever classes the parents have planned for them so children are never bored. But it’s important that children learn how to use their imaginations - let them be bored.”

Ruth’s observations are backed with statistics - two million mothers use Mumsnet, the oracle of parenting worries and concerns. One post - entitled ‘To take my kids to the Hairdressers?’ read: “For a three hour appointment?

“MIL had them all day yesterday and my Mum is having them all day tomorrow so they won’t entertain the idea. I’m at work all week (13 hour shifts) and this is the only day I have before I go away the weekend. Help!!!!”

The post elicited numerous responses, one of which read: “Mmmm. What would they do for three hours at the hairdressers?” Another read: “I think even the best-behaved kids would struggle with that one. To put it into perspective, it’s half of their school day.”

Another post was that of a mother asking other mums to comment on bath times and whether parents should bath their children together. One post read: “There are a few mum friends of mine who occasionally post fearful status updates/Tweets about having to do bath time for their two or more kids all on their own without help of their DH (darling husband - Mumsnet code).”

And it’s this over-analysis over the simplest of tasks that Ruth has observed in parents over the past few years. “People see parenting as a career now and feel they are judged by the quality of their parenting as if it were a job. This has got to such a degree in some parts of the country that some nurseries are having babies take pre school examinations. This emphasis on being excellent parents and doting on the child so much can make the children grow up to be very precious. They may end up with ‘little emperor syndrome’.”

Discipline is key: “Many parents are scared that if they say ‘no’ their children won’t like them. They feel they can’t smack children or they can’t deprive them or anything but if I ever said to my mother ‘that’s not fair’ my mother would say ‘life’s not fair’ - sometimes it’s okay just to say ‘no’ to children,” says Ruth.

Ruth’s comments are echoed in the recent statement from Dr Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, who said that teachers have to deal with the consequences of a lack of discipline at home. She said that many middle class children are like ‘little Buddhas’.

In an interview she said: “Middle-class parents who fail to impose clear boundaries simply ‘buy off their children… expensively’ – with the latest computer games, smartphones and other gadgets.”

But Ruth’s advice is simple: let children be bored.

Oh Dear I Have A Middle Class Baby

DS2 has always refused all shop-bought sandwiches other than poached salmon ones

His favourite food is sushi.

He is the only child I know who prefers Evian to squash or fizzy drinks, and fruit to chocolate.

He also only eats until he is full, and then no more, even if there is only a forkful of food left on his plate, or one sweet in the pack, he won’t eat it!

He is nearly 11 now and shows no signs of changing.

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